Update: President Biden met with governors from Western states Wednesday to discuss new measures to contain wildfires as this year’s fire season could be one for the record books amid the latest historic heat wave and megadrought.
“We know this is becoming a regular cycle and we know it’s getting worse,” Biden said at the meeting. “The truth is, we’re playing catch-up. This is an area that’s been under-resourced, but that’s going to change if we have anything to do with it.”
“Wildfires are not a partisan phenomenon,” Biden added. “We need a coordinated, comprehensive response… an we want to know what you, the states and localities and tribal governments, those on the frontlines, are facing in this danger, and what you think would help the most.”
Biden said the government has “to act fast” in containing and preventing wildfires, adding that, “We’re late in the game here.”
The president addressed the wage issue among federal firefighters by increasing their minimum wage from $13 per hour to $15. As we noted below, Biden last week called $13 “ridiculously low.”
He said more federal firefighter positions would become permanent rather than seasonal “so that when fires aren’t burning, we have a workforce of experienced hands enhancing our forest management, reducing the risks of future fire seasons.”
For the fiscal year 2022, the Biden administration is requesting $30 billion for wildfire management and relief and a 62% rise in hazardous fuels treatment funding.
* * *
President Biden is expected to meet with governors of Western states as a megadrought, fallow lands, water shortages, and the latest heat dome has created perfect conditions for another devastating wildfire season.
Biden will meet with governors, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom, to potentially boost federal funding to fight fires, according to Los Angeles Times.
At the moment, a 13,000-acre wildfire has erupted in Northern California and continues to expand. Preliminary reports suggest the Lava Fire, burning west of Mount Shasta, is only 20% contained.
Western governors are expecting more funding from the federal government after former President Trump frequently criticized them for mismanaging their forests by neglecting to remove brush.
The meeting comes as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are experiencing labor shortages due to low pay. Many state and local fire departments are exhausted from last year’s record-breaking fire season in California.
Last week, the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise, Idaho, increased national preparedness to level 4 on a 1 to 5 scale, saying this is the second earliest it had reached that point.
Jim Whittington, an expert in wildland fire response, expects labor shortages to overwhelm fire crews this year as this season could be dangerous.
“We’re at a point where we’re simply going to be overwhelmed year after year going forward given the current systems we have in place.
“We really need to look at the way we staff and work wildland fires, the way we fund them, and the way we take care of our people. We need a full reset,” Whittington said.
The meeting with Biden and governors could result in better wages and benefits for firefighters. The president last week was outraged when he was told firefighters earn so little.
“That’s a ridiculously low salary,” the president said in the Roosevelt Room in the White House during a meeting with top officials.
Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a group that advocates for better pay and working conditions for federal firefighters, said people risk their lives for public safety and deserve better pay.
Ahead of fire season, in early May, Robert Baird, chief for the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region, warned of “millions of dying trees and all of those pose hazards across California for all of us.”
In response, CALFIRE has already prepared for what could be a fiery year. The agency ramped up personnel and equipment to expand its reach across the state.
PG&E’s chief risk officer Sumeet Singh is also preparing for what could be a dangerous year. He recently told WSJ that customers could experience increased rolling blackouts this summer as parts of the grid would have to be shut off to prevent fires.
June is typically the month the wildfire season begins in California. The state, along with the Western half of the US, has been plagued with a megadrought that has produced an ample amount of fuels, such as brush and dead trees.
So what it looks like is that Biden will speak with governors from Western states today and could result in additional federal funding, personnel, and or equipment to combat future fires.